Friday, 1 August 2014

Will the real Catullus step forward? Towards a definitive text


To follow up a suggestion I made at the last Legendum meeting I have decided where possible to take a brief look at how the ancient text we happen to be dealing with have come down to from antiquity. In the case of  Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 BCE) the background story appears to be quite interesting and even a compelling case has been made for a new attempt at creating a more accurate critical text. Just how intact a text has come down us perhaps we will never know but each successive generation of scholarship chips away a little more at the mystery in the hope of getting closer to the text as it was first composed or at the very least its first copies.

I managed to get hold of the Loeb 1962 revised reprint of the Francis Ware Cornish translation. Francis Ware Cornish was the one time Vice-Provost of Eton and a fellow of King's College Cambridge. His translation dates back to 1913 and is based to a great extent on the scholarly work of Professor Postgate (P.J.P. Postgate: Gai Valerii Catulli Carmina, London 1889, and in successive editions of Corpus Poetarum Latinorum and various papers in philological reviews) and seems to have stood the test of time at least up until the end of the 20th Century.

The principal manuscripts of Catullus are listed in at the start of the Cornish translation as follows:

V. Codex Veronensis, from which all others (except T) are derived; no longer extant.
O. Codex Oxoniensis, in the Bodleian Library. Oxford.
G. Codex Sangermanuensis or Parisiensis, in the National Library, Paris.
R. Codex Romanus, in the Vatican Library, Rome.
d. Codex Datanus, at Berlin.
M. Codex Venetus, in the Library of St. Mark at Venice.
T. Codex Thuaneus, in the National Library, Paris; contains only Carm. LXII.

Cornish goes on to explain that, with the exception of T from the 9th Century CE, the extant MSS. of Catullus are derived from V, known to have been at Verona in the late 13th Century. Verona by the way is by a peculiar or not so peculiar coincidence Catullus birthplace. V disappears sometime before the 15th Century and in Cornish's time it was assumed that O and a lost manuscript designated as X both derived from this Veronian manuscript. In turn is was believed that X was the source of G, the Paris manuscript which contains a date, October 29th, 1375, and also of a corrupt MS known as the Codex Vaticanus Ottobonianus or R in our list above. There are several other later MS, many of them 15th Century Italian copies but all appear to derive from the O, G and R codices. Cornish notes that there were the early tremors of scholarly disagreements in the wings and refers the interested reader to several philological reviews where the various arguments as to which MS was the source of which and which was the least/most corrupt and so on. Anyway V stands at the top of Cornish's list at the chief and least corrupt source and consequently the basis for the critical editions and Teubner texts upon which most modern translations are made.

However there are voices that call for a new critical text of Catullus. It has furthermore recently been argued that MSS O, G and R as mentioned above derive from a single lode source and that, due to textual proximity evident between G and R, that they derived from an intermediate copy referred to conventionally as X. This is in contrast to Cornish and most of the scholarship up until the last couple of decades which as we have seen assume the common root MS of O, G and R to be the lost manuscript known as V (codex Veronensis in the list above). MacKie's scholarship has made it clear that O and X, the common source of GR, were not copied directly from V but must have together derived from a lost intermediate source (denoted as A according to current convention). MacKie based his findings by comparing the titles and divisions in the various MSS. It is clear also that the common ancestor of O,G and R, whether it was V or A, was replete with corruption. There is a scribal or copyist addition in one of the manuscript G which alludes to the hopelessness of the condition of the MSS and the difficulties of the copyist:

'Tu lector quicumque ad cuius manus hic libellus obvenerit Scriptori da veniam si tibi cor[r]uptus videtur. Quoniam a corruptissimo exemplari transcripsit. Non enim quodpiam aliud extabat, unde posset libelli huius habere copiam exemplandi. Et ut ex ipso salebroso aliquid tamen sugge[r]ret decrevit pocius tamen cor[r]uptum habere quam omnino carere. Sperans adhuc ab aliquo alio fortuito emergente hunc posse cor[r]igere. Valebis si ei imprecatus non fueris.'

'You reader, whoever you are to whose hands this book may find its way, grant pardon to the scribe if you think it corrupt. For he transcribed it from an exemplar which was itself very corrupt. Indeed, there was nothing else available, from which he could have the opportunity of copying this book; and in order to assemble something from this rough and ready source, he decided that it was better to have it in a corrupt state than not to have it at all, while hoping still to be able to correct it from another copy which might happen to emerge. Fare thee well, if you do not curse him.' (subscriptio MacKie 1977 and Thomson 1997)

This scribal request for indulgence tends to lend emphasis to the sad fact that the textual tradition of Catullus is based upon a late and very corrupt copy. Catullus stands in disadvantageous contrast to the extant MSS of Lucretius (preserved in two excellent condition 9th C MSS) and Vergil with its array of excellent condition MSS from the 5th and 6th Centuries.

Scholarly activity on the late corrupt source text has been going on since the 14th Century, with such notable figures as the humanist scholar Coluccio Salutati, the chancellor of Florence making several important marginal readings. Such emendations continued at the hands of divers scholars through the renaissance until a first printed edition appeared in Venice in 1472 under the auspices of Wendelin Von Speyer. The text of Catullus now became more widely available throughout Europe and as a result the critical apparatus developed considerably. Its seems that there were two main MSS that were used at this time to arrive at a printed text but humanist scholars (Politianus and Scaliger amongst others) must have been looking at other MSS on our list to provide a basis for their suggestions for the more corrupt passages throughout.

Even modern day apparatus criticus still bear some of the traces of this excellent initial textual work. The divisions of the poems in modern editions for example derive from the work of Scaliger (1577) and although it’s difficult to agree whether or not these are close to the original format, they have come to define the shape of the text and hence any translation we now use.

Scholarship in the 19th and 20th Centuries has tended more to the conservative and reluctant to question the text as the humanists did. The result is that a lot of the obvious anomalies of the text have survived unchallenged. It seems that it was considered safer not to posit corruption and to leave the text undecided. This position is slowly changing and scholars are looking again at the textual tradition, especially in the light of the 1896 rediscovery of R in a corner of the Vatican Library by the American scholar W.G.Hale. The textual variants are there in all of the earlier conjectural comments and suggested readings of these MSS and with a bolder approach perhaps we can reconsider the earlier conjectures of scholars before the conservative era, possibly even to revive them. Perhaps the very least we could do would be to have a full criticus apparatus with all of the conjectures rather than the rather limited 'best and most conservative option' in order to arrive at a higher quality edition of Catullus.  The level of corruption in his text would not be tolerated in that of the better preserved Latin poets and we owe it to future scholarship to provide as much material as possible to enable bolder and braver analysis of such a timeless work of art.



  1. I read and comment in this properly but thought I'd draw your attention to this Guardian news story!

  2. Yes I saw this article too - just shows how timeless the er appeal of Catullus really is. Reading the epillyon of 64 at the moment.